Built For Abuse: This 1JZ Budget Build Has Strength In Spades

One look at the $200,000 monsters dominating Formula D these days and you could be forgiven for thinking power is all-important in competitive drifting. The runs are relatively short, the points for big smoke are plentiful, and the speeds are generally higher on American drift tracks than, say, most Japanese ones.

True, power plays a large part — arguably a larger part at the professional levels of drifting, but it’s only part of the equation. For grassroots drivers looking to make a name for themselves, they need to make good use of a moderate budget. That means a 1,000-horsepower powerplant isn’t in the cards.

At the Pro-Am level, where the drivers either pay their own way or obtain a small amount of sponsorship to push towards the big leagues, the motors seldom make more than 500 horsepower. This isn’t necessarily the ceiling, but it is the mean. However, there are other ways the majority of drivers eke out a little extra performance from their cars at this level — with reliability and drivability.

One such driver is Tyler Mayer, a mechanic who went from knowing nothing about the sport to winning at the regional level in just three years. His 1990 Nissan 240SX is homebuilt, doesn’t rely on many parts which could be considered exotic, and makes just enough horsepower to compete against the others in his category. To ensure he has a fighting chance, he put most of his limited budget towards making his car run right.

Mayer realized early that, like in most forms of motorsport, seat time is critical. He needed to make his drift machine last regular thrashings in intensely hot conditions with little opportunity for fresh air to pass directly through the radiator and intercooler; to prevent oil starvation amid violent switches in lateral-g direction; to ensure this turbocharged inline-six is producing enough power without excessive stress. Mayer accomplished this while selecting upgrades which keep his wallet full and his ass in the seat. He knew that, while he wouldn’t have the punchiest car in the field, he’d have more than enough performance. More importantly, his plan was to strengthen the engine so that he could thrash it frequently without worry.

Keep in mind, that the decision to go with a 2.5-liter 1JZ inline six-cylinder was made back in 2015, when 1JZs could be bought for a couple grand. They’re easily going for twice that nowadays.

Getting to the 1JZ

Interestingly, Mayer first swapped a Toyota 1UZ into this car. For his first year in the Northwest Grassroots Championship, that 4.0-liter V8 was just fine. However, a year in, he felt the urge to step up to the Pro-Am series, which would require doubling the power in order to stay competitive. Plus, the V8 wasn’t destined for great things. “The 1UZ was connected with two crusty harnesses, so I didn’t have much faith in the engine lasting — especially if I turbocharged it. I considered an LS1, but getting one into competitive shape would’ve cost more than modifying a 1JZ would. But above all this, I just love the sound of the 1JZ. I started with stance cars, so style means a lot to me,” he admits.

After a $1,200 deal for the engine, Mayer soon discovered the ECU supplied was an immobilizer-type and he had no way of disarming it. So, he bought an AEM Infinity-6 ECU to run the combination. While costly, this modification did help define the build ethos, since few things help lengthen a motor’s lifespan as well as a modern standalone ECU. The Infinity allowed him to add an air temperature sensor, perform an LS coil pack conversion, and add a flex-fuel connector to run E85. Some serious bucks were spent at this point, but in the name of futureproofing, he swiped his credit card without hesitation.

Fortunately, Mayer already had a custom harness that worked with the AEM Infinity ECU.

Critically, he also decided to replace the OEM mass airflow sensor with an AEM MAP sensor in order to run a detailed speed density system. This can better survive boost leaks, operates at a higher resolution than a MAF, and gives more control to the calibrator. It’s not perfect, though. A MAP-based system takes longer to correctly tune and is less versatile than a mass airflow system. But, with the low-resolution model that the OEM mass airflow sensor provides, it made sense to upgrade.

That first mod took a big bite out of his budget, so he had to save his shekels with the next few add-ons. Staying budget-minded, he took a few parts from the Toyota catalog that would bolt on effortlessly to his new motor. The 1JZ’s bigger brother, the 2JZ-GTE, displaces a little more, is arguably stouter, and features plenty of modular parts, so Mayer pulled an oil pump and a water pump off the bigger engine and bolted them on.

To ensure just a little more oil flow, Mayer journaled out the hard edges inside the oil pump.

The next modification was an oil cooler. A basic performance mod that’s nothing new to most racers, but in this case, it was a major step toward reliability, too. The 1JZ, especially when stuffed into a chassis it wasn’t meant for, is known to run hot. It’s crucial that the right sort of cooling mods are applied, or the motor can cook itself. Hot oil, or a lack of oil, are two things that can end a JZ engine’s life in short order.

For that reason, he addressed another one of the 1JZ’s few shortcomings. The design of its oil filter housing is questionable; it’s bulky and it shares some lines with the cooling system. Failure isn’t unheard of, so it’s not uncommon that a 1JZ user will one day discover a little oil in their coolant. So, out went the old integrated oil cooler housing, and in went an adapter plate to mount the filter directly to the block.

The Best Laid Plans

With these modifications in place, he felt comfortable moving up into the Pro-Am ranks. Though the power levels were roughly stock — a CX Racing front-mounted intercooler, a three-inch exhaust, and an aftermarket intake tube made 320 horsepower at the wheels — the torque and the broad powerband made it surprisingly quick. But this grunt, even if it was available at low revs, wasn’t enough for some of the layouts he had to run. “Running the high banking requires at least 400 horsepower and a lot of clutch kicking,” he laughed.

This lack of power kept him from shining in his first season, and the tendency to overheat kept him from focusing entirely on his driving. That winter, reeling from a rough foray into the minor leagues, he drew out detailed plans to address the 1JZ’s shortcomings without dipping too deep into his savings.

The engine looked and sounded amazing the first season, but sustaining wheelspin at 90mph required more punch.

Chilled Air, Compressed Air

He started that long Washington winter by addressing the cooling issues with a long list of miscellaneous items. He started with an electric water pump. To keep it running nicely, he upgraded the alternator to a RAD Industries unit which provided an actual 160 amps. Along with that came an eBay swirl pot to keep air out of the radiator.

The problem with the 240’s engine bay is that it was never intended to house a six-cylinder — especially the long inline ones. Real estate was at a premium when Mayer stuck the 1JZ in, so to help draw a little more air through the Mishimoto radiator, he snipped some metal from the edges of the radiator support, bent it forward 20 degrees, and stuffed a couple of Subaru two-speed fans behind it. Simple, and, since they were sitting on top of a heap of old parts, very inexpensive.

That aided airflow, but to improve coolant flow, he sent his radiator off to a welder to have a set of plates fitted into the end tanks. These redirect the coolant flow through a basic maze that looks like a level from Donkey Kong and keeps the coolant in the radiator longer. The result? The engine now runs at a steady 180 degrees, regardless of the ambient temperature or load.

With the cooling problems mostly solved, he sought out the 400-horsepower needed to drift the big banking. That’s well within reach of a stock 1JZ with a few breathing mods and the right tune. Internally, this engine is all original. The turbocharger is still the factory CT15B, but is a limiting factor.

He replaced the original ceramic compressor wheel — which is prone to disintegrate around 14 pounds of boost — with Driftmotion‘s more resilient, seven-blade steel wheel. This change alone allowed him to crank the boost up to 20 pounds per square inch. With this, he could retain the factory manifold and generate the same power as some of the small top-mount turbos — all at a quarter of the cost of an aftermarket turbo.

The Driftmotion upgrade treatment includes larger billet compressor and turbine wheels which replace the ceramic OEM wheels.

Staying Fed

With more turbo pressure, the fuel demands grew. A set of Injector Dynamics 1050cc injectors and a DeatschWerks DW400 pump helped there, as well as checking the last of the boxes for E85. Then Mayer added an Aeromotive fuel pressure regulator, Vibrant braided lines, a Phoenix Industries fuel filter, and a Radium fuel rail with a fuel pulse damper. This last item is a pretty trick piece that steadies fuel pressure by using a diaphragm to absorb the oscillating pulses caused by the opening and closing of the fuel injectors. This helps throughout the entire rev range and minimizes the idle surge issues common with high-flow injectors.

After a dyno session at Drive Autosports, the results were encouraging. Though power was never the aim with this setup, some of those mods aimed at reliability snuck a few extra horsepower in through the back door. The result with 20 psi and a tank full of E85: 444 horsepower and 423 lb-ft of torque. There’s another benefit to this torquey, responsive engine; almost all the torque is generated by 3,000 rpm.

Notice that area under the curve. The V8s don’t pull away in the slower sections of the track.

Testing the Theory

That second season with the 1JZ was fruitful. A podium at his first event was an auspicious sign and real indication that he’d made the right choices in modifying his engine. The rest of the season didn’t fare quite as well, but 6th place in the standings at the end of an incomplete season is nothing to beat oneself up over. Nevertheless, it left a bitter taste in his mouth and he went into that winter with an urge to rid himself of it. To get the car into tip-top shape, there were a few more things he had to do.

As far as the engine was concerned, there were only two more things needed. A Tomei timing belt, and crucially, a Tomei baffle in the factory oil pan. Since he’d perfected the snappy transition and was now comfortable throwing the car around, he was naturally concerned about oil starvation.

While the folks running JZ engines at the pro level run a dry-sump oiling system, this was simply out of the budget. A simple “halfway” solution was the addition of this baffle, complete with all the trap doors needed to keep the oil from sloshing away from the pickup points as the engine buzzes about at 7,000 rpm.

“The things which kill a 1JZ are oil starvation or overheated oil,” Mayer emphasizes. This Tomei baffle prevents some of the former.

Three Years in the Making

Currently, Mayer is leading the standings in Pro-Am—and by a comfortable margin. Even with a borderline abusive driving style and the occasional bit of paint trading, all he’s done between weekends is change the oil. The 1JZ powerplant is a workhorse that allows him to showcase his driving talent without having to tinker or chase gremlins between sessions.

The plan is to move into Formula D in the coming years. The invite is there, but the funding isn’t yet. The harsh reality is that not only would he have to find the money to travel to tracks outside of Washington, but he’d have to make the necessary changes to get the car up to competitive spec. The grunt it’s got now is fine for the greatest of grassroots battling, but mixing it with the professionals means having an engine that makes an additional 300 horsepower at the least. Fortunately, that’s pretty easy with a 1JZ engine.

It’s a good thing he’s already got the right base to build upon.

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About the author

Tommy Parry

Tommy Parry has been racing and writing about racing cars for the past seven years. As an automotive enthusiast from a young age, he worked jobs revolving around cars throughout high school, and tried his hand on the race track on his 20th birthday. After winning his first outdoor kart race, Tommy began working as an apprentice mechanic to amateur racers in the Bay Area to sharpen his mechanical understanding. He has worked as a track day instructor and automotive writer since 2012, and continues to race karts, formula cars, sedans, and rally cars in the San Francisco region.
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